The Ex Files
Well done Accrington Stanley, for dumping Nottingham Forest out of the League Cup last night. A little bit of digging and delving has established that the first round of this year’s competition is one-legged, so a place in the second round and a possible tie against Tottenham’s reserves (an eminently winnable tie, given Spurs’ recent cup form) could well await. The recent kerfuffle about Stanley’s return to the league has, over the last few weeks, set me thinking about those teams that we have loved and lost. The introduction of promotion and relegation between the Conference and the League was, of course, utterly justified. Too many lower division clubs had been treading water for too long, and non-league football had, of it’s own accord, got it’s house in order and created a national league. There are now twenty fully professional non-league teams, which makes a mockery of the big clubs’ belief that the world is only interested in them, and this has come about because mobility is not merely limited, as it was as recently as 1986, to the top of the “fifth division”. Prior to this, though, it was somewhat more difficult to get into the League.
For years, the Football League had effectively run itself as a cartel, and the cartel was called “Re-Election”. It was something of a sop to the upward ambitions of non-league clubs. Every year, the bottom four clubs in the Football League had to apply for re-election to the League, along with two (occasionally seemingly randomly selected) non-league clubs. The odds were stacked in their favour. All League clubs were terrified of being voted out, and they all knew that one day it could be them up for the vote. Turkeys, on the whole, don’t vote for Christmas. Every few years or so, though, they did, and a team of poor unfortunates were sent packing into the (what must have looked to them like) oblivion of the semi-professional game. So… I’m going to take a quick look at some of them. This isn’t about the teams relegated into the Conference since 1987 (although one of them dates to later than then). This is about the teams that time forgot.
First up is Gateshead. Gateshead’s expulsion from the League is possibly the harshest of the lot. They had joined the League in 1930, and as recently as 1953 made the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, beating Liverpool on the way before losing to a solitary Nat Lofthouse goal against Bolton Wanderers. In 1960, having only finished in the bottom four of the League once before, they finished third from bottom in the Fourth Division, but were replaced by Peterborough United anyway. In a time before the Nationwide Conference, they bounced around various northern semi-professional leagues before closing down in 1973. Fortunately, the story doesn’t end there. Re-formed in 1978, they were promoted to the Conference in 1986, and again in 1990, where they stayed for eight years, regularly finishing in the top half of the table, before relegation in 1998. Since then, they’ve rattled around in the Unibond League, hampered (one would think) by playing their home matches in front of a couple of hundred hardy souls at the 11,750-seater Gateshead International Athletics Stadium.
Next up (and I’m not covering Stanley here, as they have already been covered here), two teams from Cumbria: Barrow and Workington. It seems difficult to believe that Cumbria, for many years, had three Football League Clubs. Barrow had joined the League during it’s biggest expansion, in 1921, and their League history was largely undistinguished (although they did beat the then League Champions Wolverhampton Wanderers in the 1959 FA Cup). They were replaced by the previous season’s FA Cup giant-killers, Hereford United, in 1972. Like most of the teams voted out since them, Barrow managed to keep themselves going as a semi-professional club, and have occasional period in the Conference. Their finest moment came in 1990, when they won the FA Trophy (the non-league equivalent of the FA Cup) at Wembley. In 1998, having been placed into administration, they were expelled from the Conference, but were kept alive through FA grants, and still play in the Conference North. You want a fascinating Barrow fact? Their home match against Winsord United, played on the 30th of December 1999, was the last senior British football match played in the the last century.
Workington, stuck out on the coast near Sellafield, was always a somewhat unlikely venue for League football, came into the League in 1951. Never successful, they did earn something of a reputation as a fertile breeding ground for young managers. Bill Shankly and former Spurs boss Keith Burkinshaw both earnt their stripes at the exotically named Borough Park. They had a couple of runs in the League Cup in the sixties (on one occasion holding Chelsea to a draw), but the 1970s was a dismal time for them, and their expulsion in 1977, to make way for Wimbledon. Since then, they have bumbled along in the Unibond League until 1998, when they slipped down a level to the North West Counties League. They bounced straight back though, and nowadays can be found back in the Unibond League, two divisions below the Conference.
Like the previous pair, Southport had something of an ignominious time in the Football League. Having joined in 1921, they spent their entire League history in the bottom two divisions, hitting an all-time high of 8th in the Third Division (that’s League 1 nowadays, kids) in 1969. As recently as 1973, they were Fourth Division champions, and when they finished second to bottom to Rochdale in 1978 they might have thought they were safe for another year. Not so. Their chairman, for reasons lost to history, failed to canvas ahead of the re-election vote, and Southport were replaced by Wigan Athletic, who had only finished 6th in the Northern Premier League the year before. Southport are now an established non-league club, playing in the Conference. They were runners-up in the FA Trophy in 1998, and this summer turned professional for the first time since they were kicked out of the League.
Maidstone United are one of football’s forgotten curios. An established non-league club for many years, first in the Southern League and then in the Conference, their problems started in 1987, when they sold their ground to developers and moved to Dartford. Two years later, they won the Conference. They finished their first season in the play-off places, but lost out. Unfortunately, this was not a good time to be playing fifteen miles from home, in front of tiny crowds, paying rent on a stadium that they didn’t really want to be playing in, and with no television money coming in, they were hundreds of thousands of pounds in debt. At the start of the 1992-93 season, they had to cancel their opening match and, forty-eight hours later, they collapsed into liquidation. It has been a long road back for Maidstone, who were re-formed two years later and currently play in the Ryman League Division One, with their home matches at Sittingbourne. This story ends happily too, though. They have recently been given planning permission for a new ground in Maidstone. We can expect to see them continuing their upward trajectory for the time being.
I’ve saved the best for last. Bradford Park Avenue entered into the League in 1908, and are, therefore, the only one of our lost teams to have played in the top two divisions of the League. To be fair, the concept of having two Football League clubs in a city the size of Bradford was always questionable, and Park Avenue struggled as City prospered. Their collapse was the most drawn-out of the lot. Relegated to the Fourth Division in 1963, they struggled for some years before being put out of their misery in 1970, when they were replaced by Cambridge United. They fought on, briefly, in the Northern Premier League, but in 1973 had to sell their Park Avenue stadium (from whence came their name – it was best known for having a pavilion known as “The Doll’s House” in one corner that was used as changing rooms, much like that at Craven Cottage) and ground-shared at City’s Valley Parade before finally expiring in 1974. BPA are still going, though. They re-started as a Sunday League team, and have worked their way up to the Conference North, although they were relegated from that last season. They also play at an athletics stadium, The Horsfall Stadium in Bradford.
There is a lesson to be learnt here. Look down the list of clubs, and there may appear to be a certain amount of permanence about them. English football has been exceptionally lucky in that it has had only three teams (the aforementioned Maidstone United, Aldershot and Accrington Stanley) collapse entirely during the course of a season. However, the above names should act as a warning to any League clubs who feel over-secure about their place in the world. The North West Counties League could only be a few seasons away…